Five Reasons 2013 Was the Best
Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.
You’d be wrong, 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind. All of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good, the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely, are trending in the right direction, growing with the progress we’ve made in making the world a better place. Here’s the five big reasons why.
1. People are living longer.
The greatest story in recent human history is the simplest, we are winning the fight against death. “There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950,” writes Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist. The 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) statistical compendium, confirm Deaton’s estimation, between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of children who died before their fifth birthday dropped by almost half. Measles deaths declined by seventy one percent, and both tuberculosis and maternal deaths by half again. HIV, is also being held back, with deaths from AIDS-related illnesses down by twenty four percent since 20In short, fewer people are dying untimely deaths.
The gains are even more dramatic if you take the long view: global life expectancy was forty seven in the early 1950s, but had risen to seventy, a fifty percent jump by 2011. For even more perspective, the average Briton in 1850, when the British Empire had reached its apex was forty, huge strides have been made in a short time. The average person today should expect to live almost twice as long as the average citizen of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country in 1850. In real terms, this means millions of fewer dead adults and children a year, millions fewer people who spend their lives suffering the pains and unfreedoms imposed by illness, and millions more people spending their twilight years with loved ones.
The Enlightenment-era advances in the scientific method got people doing research, which brought us modern medicine and the information technologies that allow us to spread medical breakthroughs around the world at increasingly faster rates. Scientific discoveries also fueled the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern capitalism, giving us more resources to devote to life saving technologies, and the global spread of liberal democracy made governments accountable to citizens, forcing them to attend to their health needs or pay the electoral price. So, we are outracing the Four Horseman, extending our lives faster than pestilence, war, famine, and death can take them, that alone should be enough to say the world is getting better.
2. People are happier and suffering less from extreme poverty.
There are fewer people in abject penury than at any other point in human history, and middle class people enjoy their highest standard of living ever, which equals greater happiness. This isn’t a call for complacency about poverty any more than acknowledging victories over disease is an argument against attackling malaria, make no mistake, as a whole, the world is much richer in 2013 than it has ever been before. Seven hundred twenty million fewer people lived in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day) in 2010 than in 1981, according to a new World Bank study from October. That’s astounding — a decline from forty to about fourteen percent of the world’s population suffering from abject poverty. Poverty rates are declining in every national income bracket, even in low income countries, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has gone down from sixty three in 1981 to forty four in 2010.
The bulk of the recent decline in poverty comes form India and China, about eighty percent from China alone, Chinese economic and social reform, a delayed reaction to the mass slaughter and starvation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, has been the engine of poverty’s global decline. If you subtract China, there are actually more poor people today than there were in 1981, so it’s population growth trumping the percentage declines in poverty. We shouldn’t discount China, if what we care about is fewer people suffering in poverty, it shouldn’t matter what nation the less poor people call home. Chinese growth should be celebrated! The poor haven’t been the only people benefitting from global growth, middle class people have access to an ever greater stock of life improving goods. Televisions and refrigerators, once luxury goods, are now comparatively cheap and commonplace and that’s why large percentage improvements in a nation’s GDP appear to correlate strongly with higher levels of happiness among the nation’s citizens, because people like having things that make their lives easier. Global economic growth in the past five decades has dramatically reduced poverty and made people around the world happier. Once again, we’re better off.
3. War is less common less deadly.
Another massive conflict could overturn the global progress against disease and poverty and it appears unlikely as the warmachine, may be losing steam.
Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels Of Our Nature is the gold standard in this debate, Pinker brought a treasure trove of data to bear on the question of whether the world has gotten more peaceful, and found that, in the long arc of human history, both war and all forms of violence are on a centuries long downward slope. Most eye-popping are the numbers for the past fifty years; Pinker finds that “the worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has juddered downward, from almost three hundred per hundred thousand during World War II, to almost thirty per hundred thousand during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970s and 1980s, to less than one per hundred thousand in the twenty-ﬁrst century.” Here’s what that looks like graphed:
CREDIT: STEVEN PINKER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Did 2013 give us any reason to believe that Pinker and the other scholars who agree with him have been proven wrong? Probably not. The academic debate over the decline of war really exploded in 2013, challenges to Pinker’s conclusion that battle deaths have gone down over time have not withstood scrutiny. The most compelling critique, a new paper by Bear F. Braumoeller, argues that if you control for the larger number of countries in the last fifty years, war happens at roughly the same rates as it has historically. Most importantly, if battle deaths per hundred thousand people really has declined, then his argument doesn’t mean very much, if percentagewise fewer people are dying from war, then what we call “war” now is a lot less deadly than “war” used to be. Braumoeller suggests population growth and improvements in battle medicine explain the decline, tell me with a straight face that the only differences in deadliness between World War II, Vietnam, and the wars you see today is that there are more people and better doctors.
Today, we see many more civil wars than we do wars between nations. The former tend to be less deadly than the latter and that’s why the other major challenge to Pinker’s thesis in 2013, the deepening of the Syrian civil war, isn’t likely to upset the overall trend. Syria’s war is an unimaginable tragedy, depressing increase in battle deaths from 2011 to 2012. However, the overall 2011-2012 trend “fits well with the observed long-term decline in battle deaths,” according to researchers at the authoritative Uppsala Conflict Data Program, because the uptick is not enough to suggest an overall change in trend. Since 1950, democracy has spread around the world like wildfire, there were only a handful of democracies after World War II, but that grew to roughly forty percent of all by the end of the Cold War. Today, a comfortable majority of about sixty percent of all states are democracies, a freer world is also a safer one. People have developed strategies for dealing with war’s causes and consequences. “Human ingenuity and experience have gradually been brought to bear,” Pinker writes, “just as they have chipped away at hunger and disease.” A series of human inventions, things like U.N. peacekeeping operations, which nowadays are very successful at reducing violence, have given us a set of social tools to reduce the harm caused by armed conflict. War’s decline isn’t accidental, it’s by design.
4. Rates of murder and violence are in free-fall.
Pinker’s trend against violence isn’t limited just to war, it seems likes crimes, both of the sort states commit against their citizens and citizens commit against each other, are also on the decline. Slavery, once commonly sanctioned by governments, is illegal everywhere on earth, the use of torture as legal punishment has gone down dramatically. The European murder rate fell thirty five fold from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century, the decline has been especially marked in recent years, and though homicide crime rates climbed back up from their historic lows between the 1970s and 1990s, reversing progress made since the late 19th century, they have collapsed worldwide in the 21st century. 557,000 people were murdered in 2001 almost three times as many as were killed in war that year. In 2008, that number was 289,000, and the homicide rate has been declining in seventy five percent of nations since then.
Statistics from around the developed world, where numbers are particularly reliable, show that it’s not just homicide that’s on the wane, almost all violent crime in the United States is on the decline from a peak of about seven hundred fifty crimes per hundred thousand Americans to under four hundred fifty by 2009. While the United States and Britain have dramatically increased their prison populations, others, like Canada, the Netherlands, and Estonia, reduced their incarceration rates and saw similar declines in violent crime. Same thing state-to-state in the United States, New York imprisoned fewer people and saw the fastest crime decline in the country. Globally, police have gotten better at working with communities and targeting areas with the most crime and they have also gotten new toys, like DNA testing, that make it easier to catch criminals. The abolition of lead gasoline may have played an important role in this decline, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones wrote the argument for the lead/crime link
, and it’s incredibly compelling. Lead exposure damages people’s brains and can potentially be fatal, and that’s why an international campaign to ban leaded gasoline started around 1970. Today, leaded gasoline is almost unheard of, it’s banned in a hundred seventy five countries, and there’s been a decline in lead blood levels by about ninty percent. Evidence that the parts of the brain damaged by lead are the same ones that check people’s aggressive impulses, crime shot up in the mid-to-late-20th century as cars spread around the world, and started to decline in the 1970s at the same time the anti lead campaign was succeeding. Here’s close the relationship is, using data from the United States:
Non homicide violent crime appears to have ticked up in 2012, based on government surveys of victims of crime, it’s very possible that’s just a blip. The official Department of Justice report says that “the apparent increase in the rate of violent crimes reported to police from 2011 to 2012 was not statistically significant.” We have no reason to believe crime is making a come back, and every reason to believe the historical decline in criminal violence is here to stay.
5. There is less racism, sexism, and discrimination.
Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination remain, without a doubt, extraordinarily powerful forces. The statistical and experimental evidence is overwhelming proof of widespread discrimination against African-Americans, for instance, should put the “racism is dead” fantasy to bed. Over the centuries, humanity has made extraordinary progress in taming its hate for and ill treatment of other humans on the basis of difference alone, it is very likely that we live in the least discriminatory era in the history of modern civilization. There are gains worth celebrating. Go back a hundred fifty years in time and the point should be obvious, take four prominent groups in 1860, African-Americans were in chains, European Jews were routinely massacred in the ghettos, women around the world were denied the opportunity to work outside the home and vote, and lesbian and gay people were invisible. The improvements in each of these group’s statuses today, both in the United States and internationally, are better than ever before. We have every reason to believe the happy trends are likely to continue. There is no sign whatsoever of retreat from the ideal of equality, despite events that many thought would call it into question, the magnitude, steadiness, and breadth of this change should be lost on no one.
The norm against overt racism has gone global and the belief that racial discrimination could not be tolerated had become so widespread, that it has united the globe, including governments that have said that equal treatment of people of different races or ethnicities was important to them. Millenials were significantly more racially tolerant and supportive of government action to address racial disparities than the generations that preceded them, suggesting that we should have hope that the power of racial prejudice may be waning. Finally, we’ve made astonishing progress on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, largely in the past fifteen years. At the beginning of 2003, zero Americans lived in marriage equality states, and by the end of 2013, thirty eigth percent of Americans will. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution committing the council to documenting and exposing discrimination on orientation or identity grounds around the world. The public opinion trends are positive worldwide and all of the major shifts from 2007 to 2013 were towards greater tolerance, and young people everywhere are more open to equality for LGBT individuals than their older peers. While enormous inequality remains, 2013 is looking to be the best year in history.
Once again, these victories are partial and by no means inevitable, because racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination aren’t just “going away” on their own. They’re losing their hold on us because people are working to change other people’s minds and because governments are passing laws aimed at promoting equality. Positive trends don’t mean the problems are close to solved, and certainly aren’t excuses for sitting on our hands. Too often, the worst parts about the world are treated as inevitable, the prospect of radical victory over pain and suffering dismissed as utopian fantasy. The reason humanity is getting better is because humans have decided to make the world a better place, and we consciously chose to develop lifesaving medicine and build freer political systems we’ve passed laws against workplace discrimination and poisoning children’s minds with lead.
These choices have more than paid off and it is up to us to make sure they continue in the new year.